Friday, November 11, 2011


Ideas are cheap, so the conventional wisdom informs us.  They buzz about like flies on a spring day, like moths about a lamp, of a long summery evening; they march with the determination of army ants at a picnic, are as impudent as raucous jays and humming birds, tipsy on the pyrocanthus berries, fermented into mischief over a languorous autumn.

The cheapness of mere ideas, concepts not full in their developmental stage, confronts us each time we attempt to market or otherwise launch our own without added plan or effort at development.  Right, we say, nobody would want a simple device to clip sheets of paper together, much less would they want pegs or pins to hold wet laundry to clothes lines.  No one would want to go to the effort of reducing a message to a scant hundred forty characters.  At such moments, we appreciate our ideas and our sarcasm as it makes ironic reference to enormous successes, a subtle implication on our part that our idea, too, is iconic in scope.

As the subject of ideas begins to relate to story, you are aware of the many ideas you had at about the same time someone completely unknown to you had the same idea, the difference being that he or she brought it to completion, polished it, found a publisher for it.  In some ways, you could even feel a kinship with such a person, Herman Melville, say, for the two of you having an idea, his about an enormous white whale, you for having concocted an enormous mass of radioactive matter orbiting the reaches of outer space, the whale and the radioactive mass being pursued by individuals with, shall we say, an agenda.

Ideas have surprise and disappointment embedded within their genome.  After the original rush of happiness at the arrival of the idea, you reach the host gift it has brought along for you, some revelation or connection you hadn’t anticipated.  This surprise provides the energy for the second wind of energy needed to complete the draft.  The disappointment is the growing awareness, seeping through the energy of enthusiasm, that you have not the language nor the emotional vocabulary to capture the idea as it shimmers in your imagination, beckoning you the way the Sirens called out to Odysseus.  Try as you might, you are accommodating here as you accommodate in Reality, reaching for the ideal, settling for what has come to you, the tangible, the actual.

This is a mixed bag of an essay, dealing with ideas in the first place, the need to execute the idea in your medium, which is words, then wondering through the process of revision whether you were remiss in your studies of words and of languages, leaving you bereft of a significant vocabulary.  There are times as well—in particular when you were at the stage of working with an editor—when your vocabulary was characterized with such descriptors as recondite, orotund, baroque.  At such moments you have sympathy for the musician accused of using five or six notes when a one-beat rest would serve better, yanking you back to your fondness for Beethoven because his notes seemed to you to proceed with such inevitability and no ornate flourish.  You read through your work again like a border guard on the alert for smuggled adjectives and adverbs hidden in the skirts and flourishes of your sentences.  You think of your favorite painters, nothing how neither Velasquez nor El Greco need extra brush neither strokes nor gratuitous splashes of light.  They have enough.  Enough of everything.

Accommodation in your work is not a bad thing, no compromise of ideals; it is recognition of your awareness that ideas transmit themselves in the clothing of the ideal, but sometimes there is the equivalent of dandruff on a paragraph, wanting a brushing.  Sometimes there is a touch of an imperfection; one of your characters emerges before you with a fleck of spinach on a tooth.  Do you throw her into the recycle bin or do you celebrate her as the surprise bearing gifts of energy.

Sometimes there are not enough accommodations.  What you believe you know of your species does not come through the filter of your words with sufficient presence or plausibility.  Another draft or so to try again.  Beckett’s approach to this matter was to believe each idea he presented was some acceptable degree of failure.  Fail again, he said, but next time, fail better.  Perhaps, in your efforts at accommodation, you can find some level of plausibility that will allow you to let the idea go forth with no strain on your conscience.

What, you wonder from time to time, is the uncharted land between the clich√© and the ideal?  Does it reside in the fleck of spinach on your character’s incisor?

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